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Usually it is just after the national anthem has been sung and the starting lineups are being announced at the Target Center that Minnesota Timberwolves VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale makes his way to his seat about a dozen rows up and about halfway between center court and the Wolves bench. There is a pronounced hitch in McHale's gait, a ginger, old-man walk that is a testimonial to his competitive fire. Back in 1987, he ignored doctors' warnings and played all six games of the NBA finals, averaging 40 minutes per game, on a broken foot. Aggravating the injury so severely created chronic pain, and McHale's attempts to compensate for it led to other foot and leg ailments that likewise limited his mobility and probably shortened his career.
But in recent weeks, watching McHale limp into the area has provoked thoughts of his future more than his past. It seems increasingly likely that the man who for more than a decade has been primarily responsible for the composition of this basketball team is now a lame duck, destined to be fired or to resign before the start of next year's training camp.
There are many good reasons (and even more that are misguided) why an increasing number of forward-looking, diehard Wolves fans have made McHale their primary object of scorn on this franchise. Even the most optimistic observer of this year's squad would have trouble arguing that its talent level ranks among the top seven or eight teams in the league. So it is sobering to consider that, using the salary data printed at the hoopshype.com website, Minnesota has less room to rebuild than any squad in the NBA over the next three years. No other ballclub already owes more players (six) more guaranteed money ($56.9 million) in the 2008-09 season than the Wolves. And none of those half-dozen players—Kevin Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak, Trenton Hassell, Troy Hudson, Marko Jaric, and Mark Madsen—figures to improve significantly between now and then.
Not all of this is McHale's fault, by any means. Owner Glen Taylor has been known to overpay for talent, sometimes despite McHale's protestations. And Taylor is generally acknowledged to be the main culprit behind the illegal signing of Joe Smith, which cost Minnesota three precious first-round draft picks as a penalty for trying to subvert the league's collective bargaining agreement. I'm also not going to rip McHale for things that look dramatically different in hindsight (before Larry Brown got ahold of him, for example, almost nobody but Pistons' GM Joe Dumars thought ex-Timberwolf Chauncey Billups was worth the contract Detroit offered him three years ago), or things he probably couldn't control (by last year's February trading deadline, Taylor wanted to dump Latrell Sprewell's $14 million-a-year contract off the payroll rather than allow McHale to trade it for other parts).
But even a fistful of mulligans can't spare McHale from some harsh judgments. Yes, losing three first-round picks hurt the franchise, but it also made the two that NBA Commissioner David Stern returned to the Wolves (for the 2003 and 2005 drafts) all the more vital. In 2003, McHale took a dreadfully raw high school kid from Houston, Ndudi Ebi, with the 26th overall pick, and left Josh Howard, a four-year starter at Wake Forest, on the board for Dallas to take with the 29th pick. Howard is a budding star; Ebi is in limbo. In 2005, McHale took Rashad McCants with the 14th overall pick. Thus far, McCants has been exactly what his skeptics advertised: a marvelous offensive talent with a questionable attitude and a bewildered approach to defense. McHale's second-round picks have been uniformly ludicrous (Rick Rickert? Marcus Taylor?) but are balanced out by the valuable free-agent role players—Fred Hoiberg, Hassell, Eddie Griffin—he has been able to sign during the past few years.
Another area where McHale has come up short is in mentoring big men, a skill not part of his official duties but one in which he was thought to have rarefied expertise. Beginning with Stoyko Vrankovic and Sean Rooks, Wolves' beat writers (including yours truly) spilled plenty of ink over the tricks impressionable centers could glean from being tutored by someone whose low-post footwork and guile ranked with Hakeem Olajuwon as the best-ever in the NBA. Ironically, while McHale was able to help Garnett and Szczerbiak, the Stanley Roberts, Paul Grants, and Michael Olowokandis of the world never caught on, and the list of woebegone pivot-men is simply too long for McHale not to bear some responsibility.
But probably the most compelling reason for McHale to hobble off to hunt in his beloved north woods is simply that his time has come. The argument McHale used to throw Flip Saunders overboard 11 months ago—a different voice is needed to shake up the team—is at least as relevant to his own situation now. Last February, McHale was the unquestioned leader of the franchise, the GM/coach stepping in to save the day. Since then, the tea leaves would suggest Taylor nixed McHale's choice of PJ Carlisemo, Ebi has been cut, McCants is a disappointment, KG has taken a couple of thinly veiled shots at McHale, and the trade of unhappy Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric would have been fair if McHale hadn't also given the Clippers a first-round draft pick. Off-the-record comments from inside the organization say that McHale has been feverishly trying to make a trade most of the season, going hard after Ron Artest, and recently trying to unload Olowokandi to a squad wishing to dump his contract. The most persistent rumors I'm hearing is that the impending deal might bring Minnesota center Mark Blount from Boston, who's guaranteed to make $7.3 million in the 2008-09 season.
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